QUEBEC (ATTORNEY GENERAL) v. 9147-0732 QUÉBEC INC., 2020 SCC 32

The Charter only protects human beings—not corporations, from cruel and unusual treatment or punishment, the Supreme Court has ruled.

9147-0732 Quebec Inc. was a corporation. It was found guilty of undertaking building work without a permit. The Quebec Construction Act allows for a minimum fine as a penalty. It was fined more than $30,000. The company said the minimum fine was cruel and unusual punishment. It was said that this made the fine illegal. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lays out the rights and freedoms that Canadians possess. It is part of the Constitution of Canada. Section 12 notes that everyone has the right “not to be exposed to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.” This ensures that such procedures or penalties are unacceptable and are not tolerated.

A company is a “legal person.” For certain reasons of the statute, a legal individual is treated as a physical person (a human being). It has its own “judicial identity,” meaning that it has its own rights and duties. For eg, it can sign contracts and own land, much as a human being can.

Corporations can benefit from such privileges in the Charter. For example, companies are shielded from “unreasonable search and seize” in compliance with section 8. The state cannot search or remove anything private from a company without authorization, unless expressly allowed by statute, such as whether the police have a warrant. Corporations still have the right to a jury prosecution within a fair amount of time under Section 11(b). However, they do not profit from all the privileges of the Charter. Corporations do not have the right to “life, liberty and protection of the individual” under section 7. They still have no right not to be forced to appear under section 11(c). The concern in this case was whether a company should be shielded from cruel and unusual treatment under section 12 of the Act.

The Court of Appeal of Quebec said that the fine was not unjust and extraordinary. Anyway, he added, section 12 covers only human beings, not businesses. However, the majority of the judges of the Court of Appeal did not agree and said that section 12 may extend to companies.

All the judges of the Supreme Court decided that section 12 covers only human beings (i.e., true human beings). They said they don’t cover businesses. Section 12 proceedings have centered on “personal dignity.” Human dignity is the belief that everyone has worth and needs respect, precisely because they are human beings. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they did. The judges found out that section 12 is designed to uphold human dignity. Only human beings will have the dignity of human beings. Corporations can’t do that.

Most judges looked at the term “cruel” in the term “cruel and unusual punishment.” They found out that this word would usually actually denote anything that caused pain or misery. That should only happen to a living being like a human being, not a legitimate entity like a corporation. This reinforced the idea that Section 12 did not extend to companies.